Compassionate conservatism for the 21st century

Posted on March 3, 2016 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
March 1, 2016.   Father Raymond J. de Souza

The annual Manning Centre Conference of small-c conservatives got considerable attention this year because of the presence of leadership candidates for the big-C Conservative party. But principles and policies are more important than leaders — at least to those of us who are non-partisan but seek to influence public policy from the think tank world.

I can speak most knowledgeably about Cardus, Canada’s largest Christian think tank, which is dedicated to, as we put it, “renewing Canada’s social architecture.” Cardus publishes my magazine, Convivium, about faith in our common life, but I can write about them without risking vainglory because the work I most praise is done by my colleagues, not me.

Over the years, the Manning conference has attracted an increasing number of scholars, researchers, policy experts and activists to complement the actual politicians who show up. This year’s conference took place against the background of Donald Trump’s media-hogging presidential bid. Cardus hosted Michael Gerson, whom I had the pleasure to interview, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who now collaborates with Bono on projects dealing with AIDS and malaria in Africa and elsewhere. Gerson denounced Trump as a “corruption of conservatism” in a rather more elegant fashion than the name-calling on the campaign trail.

The Trump phenomenon highlights that the conservative consensus of the 1970s through the ’90s — lower taxes, reduction in deficits, harsher criminal justice policies, national security and anti-communism — no longer addresses the pressing issues of the day. There is no shortage of those who wish to double-down on that consensus, but some battles of yesteryear have already been won: even if the upcoming federal budget should run a sizable deficit, it will be but a fraction of the deficit-to-GDP ratio we had 30 years ago.

Gerson is identified with a school called “reform conservatism” in the United States, not to be confused with reform school conservatives on the Republican presidential trail. Reform conservatism seeks to address the challenges posed by the transformation — or, more dramatically, the disappearance — of the blue collar economy, in which high wages were widely available for low-skilled labour. Coupled with a decline in the social architecture available at lower socio-economic levels — where the non-formation of families is most acute — it has created major instability for a constituency that responds to the demagoguery of The Donald.

Here in Canada, the most interesting small-c conservative thinking is attempting to get at this problem. I offer two examples from our own work at Cardus.

First, a paper released just before the Manning conference on payday loans titled, Banking at the Margins: Finding Ways to Build an Enabling Small-Dollar Credit Market. My colleagues at Cardus, Brian Dijkema and Rhys McKendry, argue for reform in a market that the political donor and consultant class never uses. They don’t argue for the easy solution of abolishing the practice of usury dressed up for the 21st century. Rather, the paper acknowledges the need for a small-credit market — better to take a payday loan at 20 per cent interest to pay a utility bill rather than face a reconnection charge that is effectively twice that.

Yet that credit market has to work for consumers rather than against them, providing opportunity rather than a path to greater dependency. You might disagree with the package of government, philanthropic and banking reforms the paper advocates, but that it addresses the real anxieties of the working poor is a sign of a conservatism that is paying attention. That the Archbishop of Canterbury has adopted payday loan reform as one of his priorities is a happy example of the Christian social gospel meeting the respect for creativity and responsibility fostered by markets.

Second, national security today no longer means anti-communism as much as it seeks to address Islamist extremism. A conservative response cannot be to shred religious liberties for Muslims, or to expand the practice of torturing terrorists and their families, Trump style. Conservatism is rather more open to the place of faith in our common life and needs to fashion a response that respects the religious nature of our challenge.

The real work and real ingenuity will come from the non-partisan voices not running for office
That challenge was rather absent from Manning, but next March 15 in Toronto, Cardus is hosting one of the world’s leading theologians, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth. We seek to engage him on his recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. The challenge of ISIL and related barbarities is a military one, but not only a military one. The solution to bad theology is good theology, not ignoring theology.

The defeat of the big-C Conservatives in Ottawa has allowed small-c conservatives to think more boldly about new challenges, whether it be the admirable Michael Chong musing about carbon-pricing, or Maxime Bernier calling for an end to corporate welfare. But the real work and real ingenuity will come from the non-partisan voices not running for office. Some good ideas were heard at the Manning conference; we need more of them, not for the sake of conservatives, but for the sake of Canada.

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